Pfizer's CEO canceled Israel trip following accusations that his visit could illegally help 'cynical' Netanyahu win the upcoming election

  • Pfizer’s CEO delayed a trip to Israel that was scheduled to take place during an election campaign.
  • Israel’s attorney general called the proposed visit “criminal election propaganda,” local media reported.
  • Albert Bourla told a local broadcaster that he had “zero intention” of interfering in an election.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

Pfizer CEO Albert Bourla canceled a scheduled trip to Israel following accusations by a watchdog group and the country’s top lawyer that his visit could illegally sway the upcoming election to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Bourla was expected to arrive in Tel Aviv on March 8, less than three weeks away from the March 23 election.

Parliamentary watchdog group Achrayut Leumit wrote to Bourla, Netanyahu, and the state comptroller arguing that a visit would violate election propaganda laws, The Jerusalem Post said.

“Mr. Bourla’s participation in photo-op events with the prime minister may constitute aiding and abetting a prohibited election campaign and is a criminal offense,” the group said in a letter seen by the newspaper.

Achrayut Leumit’s CEO, Oshi Elmaliach, threatened to open a case with the Central Elections Committee and the Israeli police if the trip were to go ahead, The Jerusalem Post reported.

Elmaliach also wrote to Israel’s attorney general, citing concerns that a visit could benefit Netanyahu, The Times of Israel reported.

Attorney General Avichai Mandelbilt responded by echoing these concerns and urging Netanyahu and Israel’s health minister to reconsider the trip, according to Channel 12.

Mandelbilt argued that the planned visit was “prohibited and criminal election propaganda, due to the prohibited use of the intangible asset of a supervised body (Ministry of Health),” Channel 12 reported. 

It was initially reported that the trip was delayed because Bourla and his delegation members weren’t fully vaccinated.

However, in an interview with Channel 12 news, Bourla confirmed that he had received letters telling him to cancel the trip. “My job is not to do politics,” he told the broadcaster. 

The trip has now been rearranged for late spring, Israeli broadcaster Channel 12 reported.

Pfizer did not respond to Insider’s request for comment.

The trip’s timing struck some Israelis as a clear sign that Netanyahu is willing to do anything to win the election.

“I’ve been told that Bourla’s cancelation was directly because of the letters he received,” Amos Harel, a political analyst at Israeli newspaper Haaretz, told Insider. “Netanyahu was quite cynically putting Bourla in the Israeli political campaign to celebrate the success of his vaccination campaign.”

“There was a red line that shouldn’t be crossed in the midst of a political campaign,” Harel added. “It’s very clear to everyone that the Pfizer visit was about the election.”

Ronny Linder, a health correspondent at Haaretz,  said: “Netanyahu treating the vaccine like his own personal achievement isn’t right,” she said.

“If Bourla had come here,” she added, “I suspect that many people would have seen this as a political circus, a one-man show, an act of election propaganda that Bourla would have unwittingly participated in.”

Israel’s COVID-19 vaccine rollout has been world-leading. 

The success can, in part, be attributed to Netanyahu’s efforts to procure vaccines so early on. Bourla said that Netanyahu was “obsessive” and called him “30 times” to secure a deal, The Times of Israel reported.

Experts, however, primarily attribute the success of the rollout to big data, Israel’s centralized and socialized healthcare system, and impactful public information campaigns touting the vaccine’s safety.

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